All Saints' Church, East Finchley

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Homily for 14 (B)

“This is the carpenter, surely.”

I wonder, how were those words said? With surprise, admiration derision, suspicion? The Gospel relates that many people had a word to say along these lines:

'Where did the man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been granted him, and these miracles that are worked through him? This is the carpenter, surely, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joset and Jude and Simon? His sisters, too, are they not here with us?'

How did they say those words, these people who knew Jesus? And why was the result what it was, that: ‘he could work no miracle there’? It is almost as if knowing someone makes it impossible to take them seriously, which is strange, because knowing someone is supposed to be a good thing, isn’t it? Yes, we say, I know him, he’s a good bloke. But, I suppose, we also say, Oh, him, I know him of old. Nothing you say can surprise me.

Knowing someone, therefore, can cut either way, and this Gospel invites us to look carefully at our quality of knowing other people. There is a knowing other people which sets them free, because, knowing them, we can help them better than someone who doesn’t know them, but there is also a knowing of others which imprisons them in our expectations of them. In human relationships there is a strong element of competitiveness and power play. Nowhere is this more true than at work, in family life and in the life of parish churches, and, actually, I suppose that means that it is the case pretty much everywhere. You know what I mean. Sometimes in human relationships what really happens is that some people are winning and some people are losing. Some people are allowed to have opinions and some are not, some are allowed to speak, and some are not, some are allowed to have a place in the sunshine, and some are not. Now this natural hierarchy building that happens at school, at work, at home and at church (and, I suppose, in the life of nations) can be a positive thing, a liberating of the able and a protective shield for the less able, but it can also be oppressive, so that people who have something to contribute cannot do so. We like people to stay where they are – in their place – and sometimes, that is more about our need to assert ourselves than about a realistic appraisal of how our communities, schools, homes, churches, and places of work can best operate.

Clearly, as we think about how we relate to others, we need to imitate the example of Jesus by enabling those around us and avoid the example of the good people of Nazareth as they said to themselves, “but this is the carpenter, surely.”

For most people, for you and for me, there is always one person whom we are particularly likely to underestimate, one person whom we particularly imprison in our low expectations of them, and that is, of course, ourselves. As we go through life we effect all sorts of compromises in our minds and hearts and find strategies to survive. Sometimes, the strategy is the most simple one of all, just giving up faith in ourselves, sometimes in regard to part of our lives, sometimes in regard to all of it. If that is true of you, then you need to read very carefully the extraordinarily visionary passage of St Paul in his Epistle to the Corinthians which we have today. The Lord said to him, ‘My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness.” God even uses our weakness to manifest his glory. He is a not a bad workman who blames his tools, he is the Creator who made us for a purpose and who has endowed us with his grace. How many people are flawed, but gloriously effective? St Paul himself, with whom I wouldn’t necessarily want to have a long conversation. Churchill, de Gaulle, Roosevelt, Joyce, Einstein, Mozart, Wagner you construct your own list of flawed human beings who have, despite and, sometimes, because of their flaws and oddities, achieved great things. Think of the Saints, many of them unbalanced and strange human beings, but transformed by grace into radiant beacons of God’s light. And think of yourselves, all those bits of yourselves that are a burden to you or a source of sadness – they are all waiting to be used in some way by the grace of God. Whatever shape we are inside and outside, however young we are, or old, however gifted, or not, the same grace is ready to transform us into something wonderful. We just have to want it, and to ask God to make it happen.

Sometimes people ask me about how to pray, and one of the first things that I say to them is to begin the day with an act of consecration. You wake up and you offer yourself and your life to God anew, that he might give you his blessings and his gifts that day. You do it every day, and you do it for all of yourself, not for the parts that have been set aside to be paraded in church on Sunday. This is what the consecration of a human life is, and, really, it is an exercise which is for every minute of every day, for God needs all of you, all the time, and his strength is made perfect in weakness.

Today is a day for listening to the words of scripture and consecrating our lives and our relationships with others to the grace of God. As we do so, let us make sure that our goal for ourselves and for others is liberation, and not imprisonment, for God needs a free and loving people, he needs us to taste what St Paul calls, in the Epistle to the Romans, “the glorious liberty of the children of God.” Amen.

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